At least 78 people died when a vessel carrying migrants from Libya to Italy sank, Greek authorities said Wednesday — with more people feared missing at sea. Coast guard officials said it is the deadliest shipwreck off the Greek coast so far this year.
Greek authorities said Wednesday afternoon the coast guard had rescued 104 survivors from the shipwreck site, about 45 miles off the Greek town of Pylos. Four people with symptoms of hypothermia were transported to a hospital in the city of Kalamata by helicopter. The exact number of people on board the vessel when it sank remains unknown.
A coast guard official confirmed the death toll and said a large-scale search operation was continuing, more than 24 hours after the boat was first spotted in trouble. “We don’t have exactly the number of the persons who were on board,” said the official, adding that it was believed to be “many people.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
According to the official, Italian authorities notified Greece’s coast guard that a fishing vessel was in distress in international waters Tuesday morning. Greek authorities say that when they were initially approached, those on board the metal fishing boat declined an offer of assistance but later requested help. The Washington Post could not immediately verify the claim.
A Greek navy helicopter, six coast guard vessels, a military plane and a frigate were taking part in the search operation Wednesday, the official said, along with a drone from the European Union’s border agency Frontex.
Photographs from the Greek port of Kalamata, in the Peloponnese region, show survivors making their way off a rescue vessel to safety, where paramedics awaited them with stretchers. Emergency responders wrapped some in foil blankets to keep them warm.
In a separate rescue mission Wednesday, Greek authorities rescued 80 people off the coast of Crete after receiving a distress call from a boat carrying migrants. Officials confirmed that 51 men, 17 women and 12 children were rescued. Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that 90 migrants, including 37 children, were rescued from a vessel attempting to sail from Turkey to Italy.
Greece plays a crucial transit role for thousands of migrants who each year attempt the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas in hopes of reaching Europe. The country has come under increasing criticism in recent weeks for its heavy-handed approach to migrants seeking safety. Last month, Greece’s then-prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, launched an investigation into whether authorities had illegally deported a group of migrants from a Greek island to Turkey, the AP reported.
The probe followed the release of a video, first reported by the New York Times, appearing to show officials transporting a group of migrants from a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos to a waiting coast guard vessel, before the migrants were left on a raft at sea. The European Commission formally requested that Greek authorities investigate shortly afterward.
The journey across the Mediterranean is often dangerous for migrants who crowd into unsafe vessels in efforts to escape war or poverty. Ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria, and economic collapse in Lebanon and Egypt, have spurred people to make the journey. The number who attempt the crossing is expected to continue to climb this year as economic ruin, poverty, wars and severe climate change continue to affect the Middle East and countries across North Africa.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 441 migrants died in the Central Mediterranean in the first quarter of 2023, making it the deadliest first quarter since 2017. The U.N. agency describes the sea corridor as the most perilous known migration route in the world. Since 2014, the United Nations has documented more than 20,000 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean as a whole.
In recent years, the route through the Central Mediterranean has becoming increasingly popular among those attempting to reach Europe, E.U. officials noted. According to Frontex, almost 80,700 irregular crossings were detected along the route in the first four months of the year — the highest since record-keeping began in 2009. It was the only route into Europe where the number of irregular crossings detected increased from 2022, officials reported in April.
According to U.N. data released this week, the number of deaths last year on migration routes inside and from the Middle East and North Africa was the highest since 2017.
In a tweet, the Greek office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees described the shipwreck as “heartbreaking” and “avoidable,” calling for states to do more. “We need more safe pathways for people forced to flee. They should not be left with impossible life-threatening choices,” it said.
Sarah Dadouch contributed to this report.